Tom Simpson

Headshot of Tom Simpson

"I want to write a history that my subjects would recognize themselves in."

Humane storytelling: A conversation with PEA Religion Instructor Thomas W. Simpson

Last year, the University of North Carolina Press published PEA Religion Instructor Thomas W. Simpson’s American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940, the culmination of a 14-year-long project that began with his Ph.D. The Canadian literary magazine Numéro Cinq also published “Recovery’s Rhythm and Blues,” the second of two essays by Simpson on Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country he first visited in 2004 via a study abroad program focused on religion, conflict and peace-building. Both Simpson’s academic writing and creative nonfiction contain deeply personal elements. His father’s extended family is predominantly Mormon, and that trip to Bosnia proved seminal, as he expressed in an earlier essay: “My first trip to Bosnia wrecked and remade me in a matter of days, altering forever the rhythm of my heart.” That vital sensation electrifies his writing more than a decade later: Both essays are raw, rich, thoughtful — and a tantalizing taste of his current book in progress.

Q: You explore a fascinating dynamic in your academic book, Mormonism’s development via American universities. What sparked your interest?

Simpson: The puzzle I was working on was what seemed like a very rapid transformation from Mormons’ oppositional stance toward American culture, to a posture of love and loyalty. Mid-19th-century Mormons experienced a lot of external pressure and coercion in terms of adapting to broader norms and also around their religious kingdom-building project. It was, essentially, a theocratic project, but also a utopian, socialistic and communitarian one. They were trying to maintain a tight-knit community, and there was tremendous tension with the surrounding culture. It didn’t make sense to me as a scholar that 20th-century Mormons would become so deeply patriotic.

I started wrestling with these questions while preparing for doctoral exams in U.S. religious history. I went in search of answers, and found stories about Mormons who went to study in colleges and universities as early as the 1870s. I realized that the university was a unique cultural space where Mormons experienced a transformation of consciousness and identity: They could imagine being Americans without sacrificing their dignity.

Q: And you primarily worked on this book while teaching at Exeter?

Simpson: I think I needed to spend time at a boarding school to figure out that these are really special institutions where people come from diverse backgrounds and discover what they have in common or what they have in tension. Mormons’ experiences at universities challenged them at a formative stage in their lives — there’s a parallel in that sense to what our students experience at Exeter. The story of Mormons in American universities is really about how our schools can be incredible engines of diplomacy — Mormons were trying to figure out if they could love America, if they could be part of the American project — and I think the U.S. could be doing more to celebrate our university system. There are problems with it, for sure — it’s often prohibitively expensive — but in terms of international relations, few institutions make the United States look better than our universities: They have the power to create ties between people all over the world who want education to work, who want to promote scientific and cultural development.

Q: Was it your familial heritage that led you to focus on Mormonism?

Simpson: In graduate school, I was focused on religion and social reform movements; the interest in doing a sustained project on Mormonism came as I was trying to discover a dissertation. My father was raised in the Church but distanced himself before I was born. And all eight of my paternal grandmother’s great-grandparents were in the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois, before the migration to Utah. So I have a deep Mormon ancestry and close ties to my Mormon relatives today, and part of what drew me to the project was that I would be able to do archival research that would involve reconnecting with relatives of mine whom I love.

So there was a connection, but also a distance. I feel a real ethical responsibility to tell the story of the Mormon past in a professional manner that meets the highest scholarly and academic standards, but there were also personal relationships to consider. So it was a kind of insider-outsider position that can be complex to negotiate.

Q: That sounds like your explanation of what the Mormons were facing.

Simpson: Yes, that’s right! When he was at Brigham Young University, my father struggled with whether there was room to explore his ideas about literature and his love of jazz, his love of all the art he was being exposed to; he struggled with whether there was going to be a full space for his exploration of artistic and intellectual identity. My personal connection to his experience drew me into this work. It was striking for me to see how long Mormons have struggled with that exact tension: “Can I be of the university and of the Church and hold those two identities together, harmonize them?”

Q: What are the differences between writing scholarly work and creative nonfiction?

Simpson: There’s more artistic freedom with creative nonfiction, but both involve a deep sense of responsibility to the people whose stories I’m trying to tell. There’s a real ethical risk associated with telling other people’s stories. In Mormon studies, I check with Mormon scholars and colleagues outside the field to make sure that what I’m writing is both accurate and working tonally. I take it seriously that I’m writing about another community’s past; I want to write a history that my subjects would recognize themselves in.

The same goes for Bosnia. That writing started as the only way I knew how to properly thank people who hosted me, who taught me, who spent so much time with me. Some of them were with me 24/7, for weeks at a time, helping me understand and process what I was seeing in the aftermath of war and genocide. It was something almost overwhelming intellectually and psychologically new for me; I had haunting questions about what had happened in Bosnia and why. I was just telling students the other day about one example: Why did the ultranationalists besieging Sarajevo intentionally destroy the National Library? Considering that question made me come to terms with human moral sickness in an entirely new way, even after all of my formal education. I needed to understand that it’s a strategy of war to destroy what your enemy loves: You want to destroy the people and the places they love as a way of utterly dehumanizing and demoralizing them.

I initially offered my written reflections as a private gift to my hosts, but they encouraged me to seek publication. They wanted me to share their stories because one of the things Bosnians struggled with so profoundly was getting people outside the region to understand what was really going on, getting their stories told and heard. That’s still important to them, that people understand what happened there.

In that sense there’s perhaps more at stake in my writing about Bosnia. There’s an urgency behind it; I really feel as though the future of humanity, of human civilization and coexistence, is on the line.

Q: In your ninth year as a teacher there, what’s your favorite thing about Exeter?

Simpson: The students! I love not knowing what’s going to happen in class each day. I love knowing that students will take the material seriously, that they’ll come in with a spirit of curiosity and collaboration and openness. That’s a gift that I take neither lightly nor for granted. I’m grateful for it every day.